Living with a mental health condition is difficult. Building a trusting, healthy relationship is difficult. Managing two at once? Near impossible.
At least, that’s what I once believed.
The truth is that your mental health will impact your relationship, and vice-versa. When single, there’s a tendency to doubt yourself which is amplified by anxiety and depression. Low mood and a lack of self-confidence can lead to a downward spiral.
It’s so easy to fall into the pattern of isolation due to a perceived lack of self-worth.
Dating involves effort
You don’t see anything in yourself worth dating, so you don’t try and date. Plus, dating involves effort. Talking, getting to know someone, putting yourself out there mentally and physically can take a toll on us emotionally. All whilst battling something like depression, this is sometimes too much to bear.
By high school, I’d already concluded that I would die alone. A little dramatic, but it seemed like a reasonable assumption at the time. I saw nothing in myself worthwhile, so I assumed no one else would. This is something shared with many people who suffer from similar conditions. I, however, was hit by a stroke of luck.
I met someone who understood. Not because he himself was going through it, but because he had close family who was.
To me, it was incomprehensible. Someone who understood what I was going through? Someone I could talk to honestly, who not only understood but actively sympathised? Impossible!
Our relationship grew on a foundation of honesty and openness. Looking back, there were some key lessons to be learned:
1. A relationship goes both ways
Granted, it may have helped that he himself didn’t have any mental health issues to speak of. I was able to look after myself without putting other people first. This did lead to an issue later on; the assumption that because he didn’t have depression or anxiety, he must be fine.
I was the sick one. Despite being an empathic person, I didn’t realise until too late that my health had an issue on him. Despite being healthy, caring for someone who’s struggling can cause you to struggle. In a relationship, it’s important to recognise this in your partner.
They may be putting on a brave face in an attempt not to burden you further, but this isn’t healthy for them. Seeing him struggle finally pushed me to seek professional help. When I was alone, I would wallow in self-pity because the only person I believed I was hurting was myself. In a relationship, there was a strange duty of care.
It was an important lesson, your toxic habits can hurt the people around you. Be careful you’re not hurting the people you love.
2. Honesty is important
I’ve always been a high-functioning person, pushing down my issues and trying to ignore them.
Spoiler alert: this didn’t end well.
As a relationship requires getting to know someone intimately, I realised quickly that I could lie to myself, but not to him. He was able to pick up on the small hints that I wasn’t doing so well. We all have off days, and I realised it was better, to be honest about them than try and hide it.
I like to compare physical and mental illnesses. You can try and ignore your broken leg, but it won’t heal, and you’ll end up worse for it.
3. Recognise your limitations
Relationship milestones can be stressful. Meeting his family and friends is intense enough, without the addition of anxiety nibbling at me the entire time. Additionally, there was the FOMO. The fear of missing out.
He and his friends would have plans, and I would be invited. The usually anxiety alarms would begin blaring, usually along the lines of “what if they hate me?” and “what if I embarrass myself?” The process of recovery is hard, and one of the first steps I learned to ignore these voices and thoughts. They did represent something worth considering – is this too much for me?
If I can’t go meet his friends or family, not only will I be missing out, but is this a sign of weakness? By not showing up, and I let us both down? In my mind, there was never any doubt. A huge ‘yes’ blazed in neon across my brain. I would be a failure as a girlfriend. Surprisingly, he took the opposite stance.
It’s ok to have limitations. It’s ok to say “no”. You are not a failure. You’re moving at your own pace and taking time for yourself.
Recovery and management of mental health is a marathon, not a sprint.
4. Emotional vs practical support
Something my partner and I realised was that I did not want him directly involved in my recovery. He offered to help me set goals, to set small tasks and encourage me to achieved them. Whereas this can be fantastic and may work for some people, for me this was a huge no.
Part of recovery is learning to understand yourself.
To understand the real you, not those dark thoughts and fears. He could have helped me set goals, simple task and milestones to aim for. This posed the risk of failure; if I failed meeting these goals I would be letting him down too. Believing you’ve let yourself down is bad enough.
This all comes down to one thing; the two main types of support. Sometimes we need practical support. Here is my problem, how can I fix it? Other times, we need emotional support. I feel awful, give me a hug.
It’s important to figure out and communicate what sort of support you need. Mental health is especially tricky, as there often isn’t an easy fix.
For me, I needed emotional support. Initially, there was the logic-based problem-solving. Who can you speak to about getting help? But as time passed and the relationship went on, I realised I just needed a hug, and to know he was there.
A lot of relationships tend to suffer due to a lack of trust. I know so many friends concerned that a partner may be unfaithful, but I’ve found I simply do not have the emotional energy for that.
For me, trust comes in different forms. My anxiety and depression want me to believe that I’m not worthy of him, that he secretly hates me and wants to leave.
I ask for reassurance on these matters more often than I care to admit. But in doing so, I open an important channel of communication. My partner is aware of how I feel and can reassure me that these fears are, frankly, a load of rubbish.
While it isn’t healthy, I’ve always found it hard to trust myself. I tend to downplay my skills and abilities, convince myself that I’m not worthy of a relationship and happiness. But I’m taking small steps towards trusting myself, and this is what recovery is.
In the meantime, I can at least trust my partner.
My experiences are not universal. Coming to terms with my mental illness was hard because I believed I was alone. After putting myself out there, I’ve realised that there are so many people who feel similarly.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that a relationship is not a fix. No amount of external love can force you to love yourself. What’s important is having a support network, and that’s what a relationship should be.